SHRM Puerto Rico Chapter Recruited to Help Hurricane Victims Get Disaster Aid

Treasury secretary, FEMA ask HR to assist with relief

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie October 5, 2017
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​When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sat down Oct. 1 with staff of the Society for Human Resource Management Puerto Rico chapter (SHRM-PR), asking if SHRM members would learn how to help their workers and businesses fill out FEMA assistance paperwork following Hurricane Maria, the staff was honored.

"Of course we want to help," said Aixa Garcia, member services coordinator. "We are human resources. We are proud that they called us."

The training took place Oct. 9 in San Juan. SHRM chapter staffers and about 500 of the chapter's 1,200 members learned how to complete the sometimes cumbersome applications that must be filed to receive federal assistance to repair the damages and replace the losses caused by Maria. Now trained, the HR professionals plan to reach out to other chapter members to offer assistance with FEMA paperwork.

Getting Disaster Assistance 'Frustrating'

The official death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is now 34, according to the U.S. territory's governor. Gov. Ricardo Rossello said he believes the hurricane that struck on Sept. 20 with winds over 150 mph caused $90 billion in damage across the Caribbean island.

Nearly two weeks after the storm, 95 percent of electricity customers remain without power, including some hospitals. Some people are worried about the effect that extended outages will have on those who are ill or otherwise vulnerable in the tropical heat.

According to FEMA, there are now more than 10,000 federal officials on the island. Puerto Rico's National Guard arrived in Guayanilla, located on the southern coast of the island, on Oct. 2 with food and water provided by FEMA. It was the first aid relief delivered to the city since the storm struck.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: Disaster Prep & Recovery on SHRM Connect

Homeowners and business owners in regions that are declared disaster areas may apply for federal assistance for uninsured and underinsured damages and losses resulting from Hurricane Maria. But the process can take time and can be complicated.

"I do know of several people who have contacted FEMA to … seek information on available resources," said Michelle Benitez, SHRM-SCP, managing director, human resources consulting, with HUB International Ltd., an insurance brokerage firm in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. "From the comments shared, I believe it was frustrating on both sides."

Benitez said that people seeking aid are often directed to apply online, but in many parts of Puerto Rico following the storm, there is no access to the Internet.

FEMA also provides phone numbers to call, though FEMA spokesman Daniel Llargues acknowledged that phone service remains very spotty on the island. Another FEMA spokesperson told CNN that the federal government's response has been hampered by that lack of phone service.

Weekend Meeting with Treasury Secretary's Staff

Staffers for Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado Gautier contacted SHRM-PR's executive director, Ana M. Iglesias Díaz, to propose the training. On Oct. 1, the SHRM chapter staff met with Gautier's staff and a FEMA representative.

"As a result of that meeting, an orientation has been coordinated … so that HR professionals can serve as facilitators to relay valuable FEMA information in their respective organizations," said Jennifer Zapata, SHRM-SCP, SHRM-PR president and senior vice president of HR with Oriental Bank in San Juan.

Benitez said that some of her own employees, who wish to help relatives affected by Maria, "will be interested in understanding what sort of assistance is available, and accordingly they would be seeking assistance to file" relief applications.

"An ugly reality is that a lot of people are without jobs, [and] small businesses may not get back on their feet until and if insurance is in place," she said. "Midsize businesses providing professional services such as legal representation, accounting, consulting and education can expect the same—no [ability to provide] services for quite some time. For the most part, there are just basic needs for food, water, gas, diesel, shelter and clothing. In the metro area, this is not so obvious, but on the rest of the island, it's very prevalent."

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